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Mar 30 2013

The torturable class

In Sri Lanka, a poor person who gets arrested on suspicion of a crime can expect to be beaten up by the police in an effort to extract a confession. But better off people or those who might have connections to politically powerful people suffer no such assaults because the police are adept at recognizing such people. This is pretty well known and is seen as unexceptional.

The US legal system is also two-tiered, one in which laws are applied harshly to the poor while the rich are treated gingerly. This is true in almost all societies that differ only in the degree. In the US it is becoming more and more blatant.

The unfortunate fact is that people are quite willing to condone such actions because they think that they do not belong to the class of people who are likely to be at the receiving end of the worse treatment. People seem to be quite willing to condone drone strikes against Americans, harassment of Muslims and foreigners here and abroad, and violations of the civil liberties of activists and whistleblowers, because they feel confident that they are not at risk of harm.

I was reminded of this casual acceptance of such dual systems when I recently watched again the 1959 comedy Our Man in Havana that takes place in pre-revolutionary Cuba and is based on the story by Graham Greene. There is an interesting exchange between Ernie Kovacs and Maureen O’Hara. Kovacs plays the chief of police in Havana and O’Hara plays someone working for the British secret service. They are talking about a Cuban engineer who had told Kovacs that Alec Guinness, O’Hara’s boss, tried to recruit him to work as a spy for the British.

O’Hara: “How did you make the engineer talk? Thumb screws?”
Kovacs: “The engineer does not belong to the torturable class.”
O’Hara: “Are there class distinctions in torture?”
Kovacs: “Some people expect to be tortured. Others are outraged by it. One never tortures except by mutual agreement.”
O’Hara: “Who agrees?”
Kovacs: “Usually the poor.”

Some things never change.

Here is the trailer for the film.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    dickspringer

    I was once on a grand jury in New York that heard testimony on a case in which a group of police beat up an Indian-born doctor in an instance of mistaken identity. There was no prosecution. I DID note to my fellow jurors that if the victim had been a black kid we would not have been hearing the case.

  2. 2
    daved

    There is an old joke that a conservative is a liberal who has just been robbed, whereas a liberal is a conservative who has just been arrested.

  3. 3
    jamessweet

    The unfortunate fact is that people are quite willing to condone such actions because they think that they do not belong to the class of people who are likely to be at the receiving end of the worse treatment.

    Yeah, this drives me absolutely batty. Everybody seems to think that other people’s bad choices were made with eyes wide open and a total disregard for the consequences, and completely deserving of the harshest punishment; whereas their own bad choices were understandable, just mistakes, should be forgiven.

  4. 4
    baal

    “The US legal system is also two-tiered, one in which laws are applied harshly to the poor while the rich are treated gingerly. This is true in almost all societies that differ only in the degree. In the US it is becoming more and more blatant. ”

    FWIW the bias against the poor or minority groups is most strong at the police level. This is why stop-and-frisk needs to go as does ‘community profiling’. There are provable biases in the decision to prosecute, lack of support for defendants, in sentencing, etc as well but they are less stark (though still clearly wrongful).

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